Violence greets opening of Iraqi parliament, seven truck drivers released

Wext: Thursday, 02.September. @ 00:00:00 CEST


BAGHDAD ( AFP ) 01. 09. 2004 - Mortar fire greeted the opening of Iraqs interim parliament -- dismissed by detractors as a weak rubber stamp for an unelected government but hailed by admirers as a step nearer democracy.

As the 100-member body gathered for its first milestone session in the heavily fortified Green Zone, home to the Iraqi government and US embassy, seven mortar bombs exploded inside the sealed-off area, wounding a security guard at a checkpoint.

Prominent Iraqi politician and disgraced former Pentagon favourite Ahmed Chalabi said he escaped unharmed after an assassination attempt on his way to the parliament and that two of his bodyguards were wounded.

"I was coming back from Najaf, where I had met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani the previous day, and when we reached Latifiya, a car started following us and opened fire on our convoy," said Chalabi ahead of the first meeting of Iraq's interim parliament in Baghdad.

Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, gave a press conference later Wednesday.

"Today's incident is more serious than we thought initially. It was an ambush and it seems to me that I was recognised," he told reporters. "One of the cars was attacked, two of my bodyguards were wounded, one of them seriously."

"After that it became clear than one of the cars was missing. An hour later, it was found burnt with two charred bodies inside and we are still looking for two more bodyguards," Chalabi added.

Despite the attacks, the parliament members went ahead with their swearing-in ceremony, inaugurating the body due to advise Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's cabinet until general elections scheduled for January.

The body selected its president, Kurdish politician Fuad Massum, who had supervised last month's national conference of 1,300 delegates that chose the interim parliament.

"I promise to cooperate with all of you and that the parliament will express the will of the Iraqi street," said Massum, an ally of Kurdish political leader Jalal al-Talabani.

Massum's appointment was the highest-ranking position for the country's Kurdish minority in the new Iraqi administration.

The post was given to the Kurdish politician since Iraq's premiership and the presidency had been handed out to a Shiite and Sunni respectively, said Iraq Islamic party leader Mohsen Abdel Hamid.

Speakers trumpeted the convening of the assembly as a historic event.

"Today, an important step has been taken towards the democratic process to build a new democratic parliamentary united Iraq," Vice President Roj Nuri Shawis said in an address to the new assembly.

"Ahead of you lies a lot of work to let all political camps and parties reach a unified position on solving Iraq's problem peacefully and within the framework of law," he said.

Shawis vowed that violence would not stop Iraq's political process.

"We will build Iraq in spite of the ill intentions of the orphans of the former regime and terrorists," said the Kurdish official.

Meanwhile, the Kuwaiti employers of seven truck drivers freed after being held hostage in Iraq said after the group arrived here that they had not ceased operations in Iraq and had paid more than half a million dollars as ransom to the kidnappers.

"We did not cease our operations in Iraq" as demanded by the kidnappers, Kuwait Gulf and Link (KGL) president Saeed Ismail al-Dashti told reporters after receiving the seven drivers at Kuwait airport.

"At present, the company transports to certain destinations inside Iraq, under heavy security protection, and Iraqi companies undertake internal distribution," he said.

KGL had announced August 27 it had decided to stop working in Iraq in response to the kidnappers' demands.

Dashti said the company last paid half a million dollars to the abductors to secure the hostages' release, but other payments had been made before.

He declined to disclose the amounts of the previous payments.

Islamist militants released the three Indians, three Kenyans and Egyptian earlier Wednesday after holding them hostage for six weeks.

The seven drivers arrived aboard a chartered small passenger plane after a two-hour journey. They were welcomed by top officials and their countries' respective ambassadors.

They appeared in good health but looked exhausted. The three Indians and the Egyptian were immediately whisked out by embassy officials to awaiting cars without speaking to reporters.

One of the Kenyan drivers, Faiz Khamees, told AFP the kidnappers "treated them well" except on the first day when they were mistreated. He declined to elaborate.

Company officials said the workers will stay at the firm's camp for a few days and it will be up to them if they want to go home.

Dashti said his company, the leading transport firm in Kuwait, has a contract worth some 100 million dollars annually with the US forces in Kuwait, but the scope of the contract could go beyond the emirate's borders.

"We will continue to send our trucks and drivers into Iraq but we will not force anyone to go ... We put our vehicles under the US forces' disposal and they do what they want," Dashti said.

A militant group calling itself the Black Banners Brigade of the Secret Islamic Army (SIA) freed the seven hostages on Wednesday after 42 days in captivity.

The kidnappers declared victory, boasting that they had forced the hostages Kuwaiti employer to leave Iraq and vowing to carry out more attacks on anyone assisting US troops.

"After our demands have been met by forcing the Kuwaiti company, which is transporting goods to the infidel Americans, to withdraw from Iraq, we have decided to release the seven hostages held by us.

Source: AFP

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